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A tide of ag progress

Erica Louder for Progressive Forage Published on 13 October 2016
hay derricks

The Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum holds a Live History Day every September. At this event they showcase the history of rural Idaho, complete with their replica “provin’ up” shed and enough cream separators to supply butter to all of Jerome County.

The lot is littered with farm equipment from bygone eras. There are iron plows, sickle-bar swathers and everything in between. In their day, these implements were the height of technology. They had replaced older equipment in the name of progress, but in turn, they too were replaced. What I find most fascinating is that when we look at the history of the world, how modern all this equipment really is.

Scientists suggest that agriculture began some 12,000 years ago. The widespread use of the plow, arguably the first farm implement, did not occur until 1,100 A.D. Farming continued almost in the same way for another 750 years with only minor improvements in pocketed regions of the world. In America, the era of modern agriculture was born in 1837 when John Deere invented the steel plow. This plow was strong enough to break through the rich prairie soil of the Midwest. From that point, agricultural technology improved with every season. The fever of invention was hardly limited to agriculture, as this time period is considered the start of the Second Industrial Revolution.

So much invention and modernization occurred in the 19th century that by 1899 the commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, Charles Duell, is supposed to have said, “Everything that can be invented, has been invented.” In 2015 alone, there were 325,000 patents granted in the U.S. I think it is safe to say we’ve proved Commissioner Duell wrong. But progress for the sake of progress may be a step backwards – at least that was an argument I heard of one new invention.

I am a member of numerous agricultural groups on Facebook. Recently one of the members of a group posted a video of New Holland’s concept of their autonomous tractor. In amazement I watched as this tractor literally drove itself as the farmer monitored in his pickup from a distance. Much to my surprise, many of the comments on the video were cries of outrage from offended farmers. “How dare they think they can replace us?” “Well, there goes my job.” And my favorite, “Trump won’t let this happen. #makeamericagreatagain.” Maybe this is how the horse felt when horsepower ceased to be a refection of their physical prowess. All joking aside, an autonomous tractor likely reflects the future of agriculture despite some indignation. We’ve traveled quite a distance since a plow was pulled across prairie soil with a team of horses.

These thoughts were running through my head as I drove home from Live History Days. Pulling up my driveway gave me a flood of admiration for this progress. To the previous generation, our 300-acre farm was a man’s full-time job. To us, our farm is way more than a hobby, but it certainly does not require all our efforts. A couple of irrigation pivots and a high horsepower tractor, both products of modern agriculture, have made our job a little easier. Today, the 2 percent of us that work in production agriculture feed a population larger than the world has ever seen. We can thank the ingenuity of hundreds of agriculturists for this advancement, and I don’t even think The Donald could stop the tide of progress.  end mark

Erica Louder is a freelancer based in Idaho.

PHOTO: We've come a long way since the days of hay derricks. Many times over agricultural ingenuity has proved wrong the statement, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

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